Metropolitan Police Department (DC Police / MPD)

Does having cops run crime rewards for tips program help or hurt?

I-Team found D.C. police have paid out nearly $2 million in homicide tip rewards since 2018; expert suggests ways that figure could be higher

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It’s John Plummer’s first time visiting Orange Street in Southeast D.C. – a place he’s dreaded since his brother was gunned down there nearly four years ago.

“My brother got shot right here,” the Maryland man said, pointing to the sidewalk in front of a small apartment building.

Robert “Bobby” Plummer was among a group of people hanging outside the evening of Oct. 5, 2020, when police say someone opened fire at them, killing Bobby and wounding three others.

His family believes Bobby – a favorite uncle whom they described as loving and joyful -- wasn’t the intended target. Years later, no one has been arrested in the crime. Plummer, his brother-in-law Kenneth McGee and Bobby's daughter, Alexis, are convinced someone knows something but isn’t talking.

“I'm angry, but I'm not surprised,” McGee, also of Maryland, said. “We have been programmed that doing the right thing is actually doing the wrong thing.”

The Plummer family isn’t alone in its pain. Bobby’s case is one of nearly 120 unsolved homicides from 2020, according to the Metropolitan Police Department’s website. D.C. police are also working to solve 172 homicides from last year – more than 60% of last year’s homicide total.

“The reason they’re not getting solved is because no one will stand up and speak on them,” a frustrated Plummer said.

Bobby’s family knows why some witnesses may stay on the sidelines: fear of police, fear of incrimination, fear of being called to testify or fear of being called a snitch.

There's one tool, though, they hope someone will use to solve their brother's case: an anonymous tip line luring callers with the potential for cash.

But the News4 I-Team found not only do these tip reward programs vary widely in how they’re run, there also are concerns over whether having cops run their own program hurts the cases they’re trying to solve.

“Negative perceptions of policing is a major reason for a lack of witness participation,” said Tom Scott, a social scientist with RTI International who studies policing and crime.

He said that while there’s little formal research into what makes a successful cash reward for crime tips program, it’s unusual to have police run them. Most, he noted, are operated by small nonprofit or volunteer groups such as Crime Stoppers or Crime Solvers, which typically fundraise to pay small rewards and aren’t subject to much scrutiny.

D.C. police use public dollars to pay out rewards as high as $25,000 but are also reliant on tips from a community that Scott said may be skeptical of them.

“You're trying to incentivize witnesses and victims to share information with law enforcement … even when they might have negative personal experiences with law enforcement,” he said.

Frustrated by unsolved homicides, former D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey created the department’s rewards program more than 20 years ago. The program has since expanded to include payouts for tips about shootings, robberies, gun seizures and illegal ATV operators.  

Through an open records request, the I-Team found D.C. police have paid out a combined $1.93 million for homicide-related tips to 191 people since fiscal year 2018. The rewards, associated with convictions related in 73 cases, represent 6% of all homicide cases since that year.

A police spokesman noted there could be additional people who were eligible for reward funds who didn't follow through with collecting them. 

Scott said even a single closed case makes the program worth it but wonders if there would be even more pay outs if tip calls weren’t fielded by cops. For example, on homicide flyers like Bobby’s, the police department advertises a tip line that sends callers to its 24-hour Command Information Center.

“I think as much as law enforcement can separate themselves from their Crime Stoppers program, those negative perceptions of the police and law enforcement would be less likely to hamper participation in those programs,” Scott said.

D.C. does have a separate Crime Solvers group, which MPD’s rewards page indicates pays out tips on lower level offenses. But the head of the D.C. Crime Solvers program told the I-Team it receives its tips from D.C. police. What’s more, the I-Team found the phone number for the local organization directs callers to other surrounding Crime Solvers organizations, instead of the D.C. program.

In Prince George’s County, local Crime Solvers Chairman William Steen explained his group oversees payouts for tips it receives directly, as well as some that are submitted to Prince George’s County police. In those instances, Steen said, the police tell Crime Solvers about tips that helped close critical cases -- usually homicides -- and the Crime Solvers board decides how much to award the tipster.

Steen said his group works with police but not for police, a key difference, he said, not just in perception but in reality for the anonymity they provide tipsters.

“If you were to call the police department and you were to give your address or your name or proximity to the case, then they’re obligated to take that information and add it to the file,” Steen said. “With Crime Solvers, we make sure that even if you start down that process, that we stop you because we don’t want any of that being a part of the official record.”

D.C. police, however, pushed back on that notion, telling the I-Team in a statement that it “guarantees anonymity to all tipsters.”

A spokesman also told the I-Team they aren't concerned about a potential lack of tips, noting Chief Pamela Smith recently credited the public’s help for tips that lead to the arrest of a teenager in a recent Brookland Metro station shooting.

But the I-Team found it could be years for those tipsters to be eligible for a reward in D.C., where most tips have to lead to conviction. That’s a higher bar than in many other places in the D.C. area.

In Prince George’s, Montgomery and Fairfax counties -- where Crime Solvers programs aren't run by police – the I-Team found they typically pay rewards for tips leading to an arrest or indictment.

“If you're only providing rewards after conviction, I don't think your Crime Stoppers program will be very effective,” Scott suggested.

In a phone interview, the executive director of Crime Stoppers USA told the I-Team her organization doesn't measure success by how many tips its member groups receive, but by how well they maintain a reputation for providing anonymity to its callers.

She also said her group recommends paying tipsters when they help solve a case – not for conviction.

In the end, the Plummer family doesn't care what motivates someone to come forward with information about Bobby’s killer. They just want the phone to ring and justice to be served.

“He was a jewel that was picked from the crown of this family,” McGee said.

Plummer said the grief over unanswered questions hangs over his family.

“Someone needs to pay for their mistake," he said. "I know it won't bring my brother back, but it'll bring closure to this family.”

Anyone with information about the killing of Robert "Bobby" Plummer is asked to call D.C. police at 202-727-9099.

This story was reported by Ted Oberg, produced by Katie Leslie, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper. NBC Boston contributed to this report.

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